Two years ago, I wrote a blogpost asking if anyone could help Richard Evans with his biography of Sir Basil Clarke, a journalist credited with being the father of public relations.
I am now delighted to report that Richard’s book, From the frontline: the extraordinary life of Sir Basil Clarke, is being published next week, on 14 June.
The “extraordinary” is deserved. Clarke, born in Altrincham, Cheshire in 1879, was 23 before he moved into full-time journalism, being hired by the editor of the Manchester Guardian, CP Scott, as a sub-editor.
Three years later he switched to reporting and proved to be a masterly writer. He was poached by the Daily Mail in 1911 and given the grand title of “special commissioner for the North of England”.
He came to the attention of the Mail’s owner, Lord Northcliffe, who plucked him to join the London staff where he played a key role in one of the most celebrated campaigns in newspaper history – a crusade to improve the nutritional quality of bread.
He covered the first world war for the Mail, defying an official ban in order to get to the front line. After leaving the paper in 1916, he reported for Reuters on the final stages of the battle of the Somme.
His articles in which he accused the government of “feeding the Germans” by failing to enforce its naval blockade on the country provoked a global scandal.
He briefly switched careers by joining the civil service in late 1917 just before his book My Round of the War was published. That experience, in which he began to practise an early form of public relations, proved seminal.
In 1919, he returned to journalism when appointed as editor of the Sheffield Independent. But he didn’t last long after falling out with the paper’s owners and ended up writing advertising copy for JJ Lyons.
By now in his mid-40s, he had become enamoured with the possibilities of public relations and entered the most controversial phase of his life by organising the propaganda offensive against the IRA during the Irish war of independence.
His justifications for the activities of the hated Black and Tans culminated in the issue of a false statement about the reasons for the police opening fire on a football crowd in Dublin in 1920, killing 14 and wounding 65.
His pro-government PR work, which was influential in the way Britain’s press covered that episode, earned him a knighthood. But Clarke unsurprisingly remains a hate figure in Ireland.
In 1924, he set up Britain’s first PR agency, Editorial Services Ltd, which has earned him the soubriquet of the father of public relations in the UK.
He went on to write the first code of ethics for public relations, which has remained influential since because its principles were enshrined in subsequent codes.
Journalists who battle today with PRs will not be surprised to learn that Clarke’s efforts were not much appreciated by reporters.
In 1929, Clarke managed the publicity for the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) when he visited mining communities in the north of England. It attracted favourable newspaper coverage around the world, and the prince wrote to Clarke to thank him for his good press.
The Newspaper Society did not agree. It wrote to the prince to complain that Clarke’s efforts had been an “interference with the liberties of the press”.
An undaunted Clarke was convinced that his form of public relations was helpful to newspapers, a view many PRs continue to believe. Clarke died in 1947, aged 68, and would be astounded to know that there are now more PRs in Britain than journalists.
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